August 4, 2015 by WVU News
West Virginia University will use nearly half of a $20 million National Science Foundation grant to research areas important to the state and nation – a clean water supply and a deeper understanding of our universe – while also preparing the state’s workforce for high-tech jobs and promoting science education among the state’s students.
The highly competitive Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research grant, or EPSCoR, was awarded Monday (Aug. 3) to WVU, Marshall University and West Virginia State University to address basic science questions related to water resources and gravitational waves and engage the workforce, students and the public. WVU will receive $9.65 million over the five-year award period.
“As this great state’s land-grant institution, West Virginia University is finding ways to translate what our researchers do on campus into real benefits for the citizens of West Virginia and beyond,” said President Gordon Gee. “From lakes and rivers to the far corners of space, we are making discoveries that will help create a vibrant economy in the state and help our nation regain its leadership in innovation.”
“I congratulate the team of West Virginia University researchers whose diligent work and track record of excellence helped make this achievement possible,” Gee said. “I also offer thanks to Marshall University, West Virginia State University, the Higher Education Policy Commission and our state leadership for their continued partnership in growing the education, research and economic benefits for our West Virginia.”
Earl Scime, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, was the chief architect of the proposal while he was the interim associate vice president for research in WVU’s research office. Scime coordinated interactions between research groups across partner institutions statewide, assembled the writing team and led the writing of the proposal over a year-long period.
“The success of this proposal was the direct result of Professor Scime’s effort to build a team of faculty in these areas and guide them through the development of the research agenda for this project,” said Fred King, vice president for research. “I congratulate and thank him and all of the researchers for their hard work.”
“The NSF EPSCoR program combines support for fundamental scientific research with expectations that the work will impact the host state in a significant way – a perfect combination for a public land-grant university like WVU,” Scime said.
“WVU already has strong research programs in both freshwater resources and gravitational wave detection, and this additional investment will enable the University and our partner institutions across the state to move into a national leadership role in both areas,” Scime continued. “It truly is a great leap forward for the state of West Virginia.”
Keeping our water safe
The Appalachian Freshwater Initiative consists of a statewide research team of biologists, ecologists, environmental engineers and scientists, chemists and geologists focused on understanding and detecting the ecological and biological effects of contaminants in water under varying climate change scenarios.
To understand and manage the risks of environmental contamination and to ensure a future clean water supply they will develop population, physiological and toxicological metrics.
The team will also evaluate responses of aquatic, wetland and riparian organisms to watershed-scale and localized disturbances, model fate and transport, and develop means of remediating contaminants under a range of likely future climate scenarios.
This research will contribute to water quality and enhancement in the state, region and worldwide. Specifically, it will affect federal and state land management policies and end users of water from the West Virginia watershed.
Data will be shared with resource managers throughout the world who are facing similar challenges as West Virginia, such as mining regions, urban areas and municipalities withdrawing water downstream of wastewater discharges or agricultural runoff.
The team will include the West Virginia Water Research Institute, a program of WVU, and faculty from the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.
Understanding our universe
The astrophysics component of the project builds both physical and personnel infrastructure that will allow researchers across West Virginia to enhance their role in the worldwide effort to directly detect and characterize gravitational waves.
The research will increase the likelihood of low-frequency gravitational wave detection while also establishing models for electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational waves events that will inform the broader astrophysics community.
Detection of gravitational waves and the characterization of their sources will transform our knowledge of the universe.
It will allow researchers to study a wide range of information ranging from early universe cosmology to formation and evolution of galaxies to populations of compact objects in the local universe to tests of general relativity and alternative theories of gravity.
Theories suggest that gravitational waves, which are ripples in the fabric of space-time, should arise from extremely energetic and large-scale cosmic events such as the period just after the Big Bang when all of the universe that we can see expanded rapidly from a minuscule volume in a tiny fraction of a second.
The wavelengths of these signals are longer than our solar system, so it would be impossible to build a detector large enough to observe them. Instead, scientists use millisecond pulsars.
Pulsars are rapidly spinning, ultra-stable stars that are nature’s most precise celestial clocks. They appear to “tick” every time their beamed emissions sweep past the Earth like a lighthouse beacon.
Gravitational waves may be detected in the small fluctuations that they cause in the measured arrival times at Earth of radio pulses.
Through an interdisciplinary and multi-institutional effort involving faculty from physics and astronomy, mathematics, electrical engineering and computer science at WVU, Marshall University, West Virginia Wesleyan College and Shepherd University, the sensitivity of pulsar timing arrays to nanoHertz frequency gravitational waves emitted by supermassive black-hole binaries will be enhanced.
The team will add more millisecond pulsars to the array, develop improved algorithms for characterization of pulsars, increase understanding of the source populations and improve the sensitivity and efficiency of algorithms that detect gravitational wave signals.
Additionally, new capacity will be built to contribute to searches for hertz to kilohertz gravitational waves using ground-based laser interferometers.
Preparing a workforce and inspiring science education
The EPSCoR grant will engage West Virginia students in water-quality research and watershed management. It will also train students in data mining, signal processing and electronics design techniques required for gravitational waves detection, preparing a workforce for new industries such as high-bandwidth communications and big data analysis.
“The water research focuses on the stewardship of one of our state’s most precious natural resources, fresh water,” King said. “The work is timely in terms of developing knowledge and skills needed to monitor and protect this significant natural resource as we move our state’s economy forward.”
King continued by saying that the astrophysics element of the project builds on WVU’s collaboration with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Facility in Green Bank.
“The research not only addresses a significant question in astrophysics, the existence of gravitational waves, but also provides training to students in the use of cutting-edge techniques in faint radio signal detection and parsing massive data sets to extract key information,” he said.
Additionally, WVU and its partner institutions will inspire students and the general public to pursue studies and careers in science by communicating their research findings in museum environments. A unique feature of this project will be the use of hands-on science activities for K-12 students and the public to develop a pipeline of future scientists in West Virginia.
The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research was created by the National Science Foundation in 1979 to build capacity in selected states for long-term improvement in science and engineering.
It was designed to fulfill the NSF’s mandate to promote scientific progress nationwide. Twenty-five states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands and Guam are currently eligible to compete for EPSCoR funding. Through this program, NSF establishes regional partnerships with government, higher education and industry that effect lasting improvements in a state’s or territory’s research infrastructure and research and development capacity, and hence, its academic competitiveness.
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Original story: WVU Today
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